The following interview with Giles Smith appeared in a February 1991 issue of The Independent ...
Sting has chosen to open his world tour in small theatres rather than big arenas. Giles Smith met him in New York.
Sting's new live show opens, naturally enough, with a string of songs from his latest album, 'The Soul Cages'. Then comes a pause during which, ruffling his hair with calculated diffidence, he leans into the microphone and asks, "Any requests?" At which point - bedlam. The audience, until now seated in what, by American standards, would have to count as calm acquiescence (ie outbreaks of shrill whistling and chimp whoops at merely 15 second intervals) suddenly bursts into a barely decipherable roar, some people even rising out of their chairs to stake a claim: 'Every Breath You Take', 'Message in a Bottle', 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', 'So Lonely' (Someone near me appeared to be shouting, again and again, "Kiss my ass!" but he seemed to be having a good time and probably intended it kindly.) In short, too many requests to honour.
Sting, at the start of his 1991 Tour, settles for 'Roxanne' (1978). The old ones, it seems, are the best - or, at least, the best received.
You could take this as a slight against those new numbers. Sting reckons "this latest album has got the best reviews I've ever had - and the worst. There's a polarity about them which is quite extraordinary and, I suppose, in a way, confirming. Some of the reviews you can classify as revenge of the nerds - hate mail. A lot of it, you're touching deep areas of resistance and prejudice and, actually, hatred, which I don't know how much is to do with the music or to do with my projected image, or what." But it's impossible to neglect the fact that 'The Soul Cages' is America's fastest-selling album this year, cruising effortlessly to third place in the album charts inside two months, in a country where that sort of journey normally takes even the most eagerly-awaited record considerably longer. Live shows, though, are something different.
"I'm not one of these people who would say, 'come to my concert but you can only hear the new stuff'. People come to the concerts to hear the whole thing, and I'm perfectly happy to do that, as long as they allow me to change the arrangements, make key changes, tempo changes, as long as they accept that nothing is cast in stone. Over the last few years, I've been doing 'Roxanne' on my own with a guitar, as a bossa nova. For this tour, to go back to the old Police arrangement, with bass and drums, suddenly made it exciting to play, and the same for 'Message in a Bottle'. It was nice to bring those songs back to life. I like them, they still mean something to me."
Given Sting's status, you might have figured your best chance of ever hearing Roxanne delivered live again would necessarily involve congregating in some Enormodome or other. This week's New York shows, however, took place at the Beacon, a shallow, if wide and steeply- banked, theatre on Broadway. It's a facility which offers few superstar comforts: in the chair-free shabby greenroom, backstage before the show, Sting was to be seen gargling on the contents of a bottle of Aloe Vera juice while jostling for space with the other band members and the stage crew. ("Apparently, they're making another Spinal Tap," he said at one point. "I want to be in it.") The Beacon shows are part of a month of American concerts in small venues, before the show circuits the country again, taking in the more predictable sports halls and football fields, and they represent an opportunity not just to tighten the act for broader exposure, but also to indulge in a small piece of experimentation.
"In a theatre you can create the sort of freedom that a jazz group has, to go where you want, and you can't do that if you place it in the context of a stadium. I've had to talk to the sound man a lot, who's a bit old school in this respect. I'm trying to educate him about playing quietly. When you play with more volume than you need, you lose the organic sound of the string being pulled. And when you play below the volume the extra volume is created by the fingers. And that's musical, where the other isn't. Two hours of loud music is just industrial. And I wish to God that I could do the rest of my career in small theatres - but you can't pay the bills that way."
This quietening down (and, to some extent, backing-off) is at a considerable remove from the manner in which Sting, in the late Seventies, marauded across America as a member of The Police. That band's determination to hit the major league is attested to by the willingness with which all three of them peroxided their hair for an American Wrigley's Gum advertisement - a bluntly commercial way of arriving at an image.
Come the mid-Eighties, at the Police's peak, they coolly sold out New York's Shea Stadium in a not unsubstantiated parallel with a certain band called The Beatles.
"But stadium shows are just a blur. My memories of them are all the same - they all seem the same, feel the same when you come off. I much more readily remember gigs in little clubs, where you had to carry the gear up stairs and there were four or five people there." (During their earliest American assault, The Police once did perform in front of three people in a club in Poughkeepsie. Sting climbed off the stage at the close, introduced himself to the audience, and then introduced the audience to each other.)
"Although, Shea Stadium I suppose I do remember. Shea was a kind of triumph, in the sense that it's a very famous venue, it was a good gig, and it was at the height of the success of The Police. We were the number one group, biggest record, big hit - all kinds of stuff. But I mostly remember that because Stewart Copeland, The Police drummer had just broken my rib in a fight we'd had, and trying to sing with a broken rib is not a lot of fun. The fight was over the New York Times - I was trying to read it and he grabbed it off me. Stewart and I were always fighting. We were too close: and we get on much better now, because we hardly ever see each other. And so, yes, I remember Shea Stadium. The rest of them I don't."
It was never likely that The Police would survive intact, and not simply because of their penchant for knocking each other around. Sting came to pop stardom at what was in those days the relatively late age of 26. "I'd been two years as a teacher, which wasn't entirely a waste: it's the same job, really - entertaining delinquents for an hour or two. But I'm glad that I had an education, that I held a job down, that I had a family, because I felt I was an adult and I could objectify what was happening to me. At the same time, I fell into some of the obvious traps as well - drugs, giving my money away. If I'd been any younger or any less experienced, I probably would have died."
But musically too, the group never looked less than a precarious set-up: Copeland's precociously random drumming, Andy Summers' psychedelic guitar playing, and Sting's vocal howl were three elements locked for a while in fusion, but always potentially volatile. "We really just experimented with stuff we knew, stuff we liked, and we ended up creating a kind of hybrid between amphetamine rock and roll and reggae, which hadn't really been done before, not in any polished sense. I suppose we were a pretty dynamic little combo - we could actually play and we had songs... Eventually, though, I wanted a freer situation where I could expand the group - have a saxophone player, a keyboard player. And you couldn't do that with The Police. The Police was three guys."
Hence the more mellow albums ('Dream of the Blue Turtles', 'Nothing Like The Sun' and the latest) which have followed. The question becomes, not whether Sting could write them like he used to, but whether he would want to.
"It used to be much easier to write, because I really felt, say ten years ago, eight years ago, that I had a finger on some sort of pulse, some collective sense of what's a hit. You know, I could sit at the piano and write 'Every Breath You Take' and go That's a hit, that's a big hit - and just keep writing them. The pop scene is diffuse now, and very hard to pin down. I don't think you can write hits forever. And I don't think you'd really want to. Unless you're Irving Berlin, and he died miserable.
"Inevitably, your music becomes more involved, less immediately accessible. And I think I'm a pretty good bass player: I've got these big strong fingers." (At this point he held out a hand which did indeed look like a plumber's tool kit.) "Most people who listened to the new album said they didn't like it the first time, but it grew on them. It's much more layered than my stuff used to be. I think my intention is to implicate the listener, rather than impress him immediately. You'd be surprised that the basis of 'All This Time' the most recent single is actually a piece of Bach - really pretentious, but it's true. The way the chorus comes in is lifted from the first cello suite. And the lyrics I wrote in Normandy. I went to Normandy one weekend when I'd just started the album and I stayed in the hotel that Proust used to stay in. So I got his room : OK, I'm in Proust's room, 'Remembrance of Things Past' and all that, right, sat down and looked at the sea. Wrote a few images down, a bit of free association, and then after a while you get some idea of a structure.
Songwriting has always been a miraculous process which is incredibly satisfying, and I don't necessarily understand how it's done. And, for me, it happens with less and less frequency, actually. Which is scary, I suppose."
© The Independent